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Section 4

Does the teleological argument work?

David Hume

The design argument has convinced many people over the years, but hasn’t persuaded everybody. Its most famous critic was David Hume. We will briefly look at two of his responses to the argument.

Criticism one – the success of the analogy

Hume’s key point related to the logic of the design argument. He pointed out that the strength of an analogical argument depends on how similar the things being compared are. He suggested that human inventions and living things are actually not as similar as you might first think. Hume pointed out simply that living things are organic in nature whereas man-made machines are mechanistic. The analogy between the universe and any product of human design is therefore, according to Hume, not strong enough to allow us to draw definite (highly likely) conclusions.



√ complex √ very complex

√ has an obvious purpose √ has an obvious


 Mechanistic  Organic
Conclusion Conclusion

‘We know that a watch ‘We can’t be certain

has been designed.’ that the human eye has

been designed.’

Criticism two – who designed the universe?
At one point Hume actually conceded that maybe the argument worked. Maybe the evidence of order and design in the universe does in fact lead to the reasonable conclusion that it must have been designed. However, he then suggested we are not entitled to jump to the conclusion that the designer of the universe is actually God, an all-powerful, all-knowing or even good being. Maybe, Hume suggested, it could have been the work of a team of designers, or of an evil force, or perhaps, even, the bungled work of an inferior, junior designer.

Hume famously said ….

This world for aught we know, is very faulty and imperfect compared to a superior standard and was only the first rude essay of some infant deity who afterwards abandoned it, ashamed of his lame performance.
When you stop and honestly consider the human brain it’s difficult to agree with Hume that the ‘designer’ could possibly be ashamed of his lame performance. However, as we will see later, Hume had something else in mind. Can you think of something in the universe that you may wish to call faulty?

The theory of evolution

The theory of evolution is for many the decisive challenge to the design argument. David Hume appeared to anticipate it in his own earlier writings: ‘Why can matter not contain within itself the source of order and design?’ Charles Darwin produced his famous book, On the Origin of Species, in 1859. Darwin offered an explanation for the order and complexity in the natural world without the need of a designer God. He suggested that a careful observation of nature shows us that we can get very complicated forms of life naturally without any need of a designer.

William Paley thought that God was a bit like a watchmaker who carefully designed and built everything with a clear purpose in mind. Richard Dawkins, a contemporary and well known academic, published a recent book entitled The Blind Watchmaker. In it he attempts to argue that evolution has completely destroyed the teleological argument. According to Dawkins, complex living things result entirely from natural processes. He even suggests in a more recent book, Climbing Mount Improbable, that the apparent partnerships in nature, like those between the bucket orchid and the bee, can be fully explained by the process of evolution. He suggested that the processes of natural selection and the survival of the fittest are entirely ‘blind’.

Has the design argument been defeated?

Look at the following quote:

In the beginning were only germs or causes of the forms of life, which were afterwards to be developed in gradual course.’
Who do you think said this? Charles Darwin? Richard Dawkins? You might be surprised to know that it was the Christian theologian St Augustine of Hippo (354–430AD). He understood the Genesis account of creation in allegorical terms. It’s perfectly likely that he wouldn’t have been overly concerned when the theory of evolution was explained by Darwin. If the story of Genesis is allegorical then maybe each ‘day’ stands for millions of years and the best way to understand creation is to think of it in terms of a slow evolution.
It’s the idea of blind evolution that most people who believe in God find difficult to accept. Maybe creation did happen over a very long period of time but surely, they may suggest, something as immensely complex as the human brain could not come into existence by chance. Human consciousness is often cited as a reason why people find evolution difficult to accept. The writer F R Tennant, in his book Philosophical Theology, suggested that evolution could easily be the mechanism that God used to create life.


What do you think is meant by the following statement?

‘When God rolled the dice he ensured that the dice was loaded.
Tennant also suggested that blind evolution can’t really explain why humans spend so much time enjoying beautiful scenery, or appreciating music and art. The human brain is so stunningly complex that, for many people, the idea of natural selection and survival of the fittest as its sole explanation seems difficult.
Before we move on it’s worth looking back to Hume’s second criticism. Although appearing crude when first read, it does in fact lead us to the main reason why people struggle to accept that there is a God. If God designed the universe why is it that there are so many natural disasters and so much disease? Why would God design a universe that is so full of suffering?

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